March 12, 2012 -- It sounds like the stuff of riveting mystery novels: A team of researchers has spent nearly 40 years searching for a long-lost painting by Leonardo Da Vinci, and may have located it beneath another work that was painted over it.
The research team, lead by University of California at San Diego professor Maurizio Seracini, announced today that it could be one step closer in its search to find Da Vinci's lost masterpiece "The Battle of Anghiari," which he began painting in 1505 but left unfinished when he left Florence in 1506.
Seracini's team, which is sponsored by the UCSD and The National Geographic Society, used probes to drill a few small holes in a fresco painted by Giorgio Vasari located in the Piazzo Vecchio's Hall of the 1500s.
They sampled the chemical content of the paint beneath a small gap behind Vasari's work. Their analysis showed that the chemical composition was similar to that in the paint that Da Vinci used when he painted the "Mona Lisa" and "St. John the Baptist," according to the Associated Press.
Seracini told reporters during a press conference today that the fragments of red, black and beige paint found beneath Vasari's work is consistent with the organic paint Da Vinci used on his frescoes.
"We have found these very special black pigments...and there are some traces of a red lacquer," he told Eurovision. "The red lacquer is not a pigment usually used on murals, because it would not last, and it is expansive. The red lacquer is used for oil painting. And this element matches with Leonardo's plan to paint his 'Battle of Anghiari' with oil technique."
"Although we are still in the preliminary stages of the research and there is still a lot of work to be done to solve this mystery, the evidence does suggest that we are searching in the right place," Seracini said.
Vasari's painting, "Battle Marciano in Val di Chiana," was painted in 1563 in Florence's Piazzo Vecchio when the Hall of the 1500s was being remodeled. Vasari painted several frescoes there and the Da Vinci masterpiece was thought to be destroyed, reported Eurovision.
But Seracini, when surveying the hall using laser and radar methods, discovered air gaps behind the fresco and suspected that Vasari built a wall in front of Da Vinci's unfinished masterpiece and painted it over with a fresco in order to preserve it.
Seracini also discovered a telling clue: Vasari included a soldier in the fresco who holds a flag that reads, "He who seeks, finds."
Seracini, who was featured in Dan Brown's novel "The Da Vinci Code," obtained permission from the city of Florence to drill holes into Vasari's painting, and also has the backing of renowned art restoration institute Opificio delle Pietre Dure. But a number of art historians and experts think his research is bogus.
Experts Challenge Search for Lost Da Vinci
Tomaso Montanari, a professor at the University of Naples Federico II, has spearheaded a petition signed by more than 100 art historians who oppose the process, including experts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and The National Gallery in London. Montanari told ABC News that Serafina's process is not transparent and is based on sensationalism rather than science. "It is just propaganda," he said.
Moreover, Montanari said that the paint beneath Vasari's fresco could be ornamental decoration, or paint used by other artists in Florence during the same time period. And because of Da Vinci's experimental painting technique, it's unlikely that "The Battle of Anghiari" would be preserved for so long.
Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi told reporters they may decide to remove parts of the Vasari work which were restored in the 19th and 20th centuries in order to look behind them.
"We are sure that the 'Battle of Anghiari' is behind" Vasari's work, he told the Associated Press.